OUDENAARDE, Belgium (VN) — Something magical happened Sunday across the fields of Flanders. Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step) dared to attack more than 50km from the finish line, one of the longest solo attacks in Ronde van Vlaanderen history, and held off a chasing field of captains to claim his biggest win since the 2012 world championships.
A lot of stars had to line up for the victory to tilt Gilbert’s way. A crash here, a hesitation there, some team dynamics stacked up in between, and you get a different winner. That’s bike racing, nothing more than a million possible outcomes thrown into a blender. Push the “mix” button five seconds later here or a minute earlier there, and someone else comes up a winner.
On Sunday, everything went right for “Phil-Gil,” and at 34, the rider who was raised in a village at the base of the La Redoute, the famous climb of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, won the biggest race in Flanders.
Here’s how it happened:
1. The Muur: It matter more than expected
When race organizers announced the return of the fabled Muur, the pros generally responded with a collective “meh.” At just under 100km to go, everyone thought the Kampelmuur, despite its fearsome steeps and historic allure, was simply too far from the finish to prove decisive.
No one asked Tom Boonen — actually, we did ask, and he said, “it wouldn’t matter” — and the proud warrior set down a race-breaking acceleration on the same very stretch of road where Fabian Cancellara dropped him in 2010. Racing in his final Flanders, Boonen punched the accelerator, and single-handedly blew up the race. The crowd went nuts as Boonen led the way over the top.
Who was left out: Pretty much the entire peloton. Defending champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Olympic champion Greg van Avermaet (BMC Racing) and John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) were among the biggest names caught out. Quick-Step’s favored numbers game paid dividends. Boonen was joined by Matteo Trentin and the alert Gilbert. Sep Vanmarcke (Cannondale-Drapac), former winner Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), two Sky riders and Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) were among 14 escapees. It was a Flanders jailbreak, and it decisively tilted the race in Gilbert’s favor. Star one was lining up.
Coulda, shoulda, woulda: It was a balancing act for the riders coming up behind. The Boonen-Gilbert group opened up a one-minute gap on the flats after the Muur, and had some collective firepower in the group, with everyone committed to the move (except Stuyven and Bora-Hansgrohe’s Maciej Bodnar). The group coming up behind had the power in numbers. Bora-Hansgrohe sport director Patxi Vila chimed in on the course radio: “Be patient, guys, it’s still a long way to go. Be patient.”
Front-row quote: “I was expecting Sky to go full-gas on the Muur. There was another race, I cannot remember when, but they tried some old cyclocross trick, when you have a lot of guys go hard to the base, then pedal at 3kph on the climb, and then everyone behind you has to step out of the pedals, and then those at the front accelerate again. But then Rowe asked me if we were going to attack, and then I realized it they were more afraid of us. So I said, ‘screw it,’ and decided to go for it.” —Boonen
2. Gilbert is all-in: Attack over the Paterberg
It was a 30km drag race from the Muur to the second of three passages up the Oude Kwaremont, and the first of two Kwaremont-Paterberg doubles. The stacked up climbs have proven the race-breaker/champion-maker since the course was tweaked in 2012. It was a real tipping point of the race.
The Boonen group had scooped up the day’s early move, and Quick-Step was driving hard to try to give their leaders a chance. Big turns by Boonen and Trentin meant that they hit the base of the Oude Kwaremont with a slender 35-second lead. Gilbert instinctively knew if he took the initiative, he could change the dynamics. Racing in Flanders for the first time in five years, he put all of his chips on the table. No one could answer, and just like, Gilbert was at the front of the race alone.
Who was left out: From behind, Sagan and Van Avermaet finally turned on the turbos, blowing up the chase group and reeling in the Boonen group, tilting the momentum back to the chasers. If anyone, it was Boonen, who burned up some matches trying to give the move some legs, only to see Gilbert ride away. But as he said at the start of the race, the tactic was that someone from Quick-Step would win the race. They were giving Gilbert his chance.
Coulda, shoulda, woulda: Someone should have followed Gilbert, and Cannondale’s Vanmarcke was in an ideal position to do so. The big Belgian might have gone, but just after the Kwaremont and before the Paterberg, he apparently got his rear wheel stuck in one of the cracks that are typical on the concrete rural farm roads. Vanmarcke violently crashed to the ground, knocking down Sky’s Luke Rowe and Gianni Moscon with him. With no one seriously challenging from that front group, Gilbert took flight.
Front-row quote: “At the end of the cobbles [Paterberg], I looked back and saw that I had a big gap. I called back to the team car, and they just said to keep going. I was worried because it was still a long way to go.” — Gilbert
3. Boonen’s nightmare, Sagan’s surge
Gilbert was left alone at the front, trying to balance his speed, nurse his gap of about 1 minute, and try to save something for the final charge up the final Kwaremont-Paterberg combo. Coming from behind, Sagan surged, drawing out Van Avermaet and an elite group of about 10 chasers, including Oliver Naesen (Ag2r-La Mondiale). It was crunch time, and the big favorites were pressing.
Who was left out: Disaster struck Boonen at the base of the Taaienberg with 36km to go. His chain slipped as he switched from his big ring to the small when he was still right in the mix in the chasers about 1 minute behind Gilbert. After switching bikes, another chain slipped. Then he was given Niki Terpstra’s spare bike, which was too small. Boonen’s final Flanders was over without much fanfare, and he rode the line 37th at 3:30 back, a result that did not reflect the impact he had on the race.
Coulda, shoulda, woulda: It was every man for himself at this point, and while Fabio Felline gave chase, other fast men like Trek-Segafredo’s John Degenkolb and Kristoff couldn’t follow. “I just didn’t have the legs to go with Sagan and Van Avermaet,” Kristoff admitted.
Front-row quote: Asked how disappointed he was to see his final Flanders end in disappointment, Boonen countered with this: “Not much, the season is still long for me …”
4. Sagan’s fumble, a trio’s tumble
Nearing the top of the Kwaremont, it seemed momentum was on the side of Sagan, Van Avermaet and Naesen. Three of the strongest riders in the bunch were in clear collaboration to reel in Gilbert. And then disaster struck. Sagan, one of the best bike handlers in the bunch (and who popped a wheelie riding across a platform at sign-on) rode dangerously close to the barriers on the left edge of the cobbles. It was not clear if he got his handlebar tangled up in a jacket or a race banner, or simply clipped his front tire against the barrier, but the result was obvious. All three tumbled to the ground. By the time they got themselves untangled, only Van Avermaet could recover to chase. “I was feeling great in that instant,” said Naesen at the line. “Now I am very frustrated.”
Who was left out: When it all shook out, it was Cannondale’s Dylan Van Baarle who ended up just missing a podium. Van Avermaet recovered, and Terpstra came out of the pursuit group to cover the chase. The big Dutchman was ready to counter if Gilbert was going to get caught. Instead, he pipped his younger compatriot for third, but it was still the best result of Van Baarle’s promising classics career.
Coulda, shoulda, woulda: The Sagan crash took the air out of the chase. Bora officials believed Sagan could have caught Gilbert, but BMC Racing officials said it was futile to speculate. At that point, Gilbert had more than enough to hang on. “Everything was going to plan,” said Bora-Hansgrohe manager Ralph Denk. “Crashing like that wasn’t part of the plan.”
Front-row quote: “I don’t know what happened. I don’t know if I was snagged by a jersey or hit the barrier, but in a crash like that, you are right on the ground. You bike stays there. I wasn’t able to get moving again very quickly.” — Sagan
5. Gilbert versus the world
Gilbert couldn’t believe his luck. His legs held out, he didn’t bonk, and didn’t cramp up. No one could bridge out, and he didn’t crash, didn’t puncture, and didn’t panic. Looking back with 1km to go, he had more than enough time to celebrate. At the finish line, the flamboyant former world champion had enough time to get off his bike, and carry it across the line, held triumphantly in the air — heaven on earth for any professional bike racer.
Coulda, shoulda, woulda: Everyone was left wondering if Sagan hadn’t crashed, would he have been able to chase him down along with Van Avermaet? What would have happened if Boonen’s chain hadn’t slipped? Or if Vanmarcke would have been able to mark Gilbert earlier in the race? Those questions will be left for others to answer. Gilbert won, end of conversation. Now it’s time for champagne, and time to turn everyone’s eyes to Paris-Roubaix. The “real” cobbles await, with its millions of scenarios waiting to play out.
Front-row quote: “I will remember every second” — Philippe Gilbert, winner of the 2017 Ronde van Vlaanderen